Video: How Other People Affect Your Habits, and You Affect Their Habits

I’m doing a video series in which I discuss the various strategies that we can use for habit-formation.

Habits are the invisible architecture of everyday life, and a significant element of happiness. If we have habits that work for us, we’re much more likely to be happy, healthy, productive, and creative.

My forthcoming book, Better Than Before, describes the multiple strategies we can exploit to change our habits. To pre-order, click here. (Pre-orders give a real boost to a book, so if you’re inclined to buy the book, I’d really appreciate it if you pre-order it.)

Here, I talk about the Strategy of Other People.

 

In Letters from a Stoic, Seneca wrote, “Associate with people who are likely to improve you,” and if you want to form good habits, this is a very important thing to keep in mind.

Other people’s actions and habits exert tremendous influence on me, as mine do on them.

What others do, say, and think rubs off on me.  For instance, in a phenomenon known as “health concordance,” couples’ health habits and statuses tend to merge over time. One partner’s health behaviors—habits related to sleep, eating, exercise, doctor visits, use of alcohol, cigarettes, and marijuana—influence those behaviors in a partner. If one partner has type 2 diabetes, the other partner faces a significant increase in the risk of developing it, as well. If one partner gives up cigarettes or alcohol, the other is more likely to quit.

Also, because we’re quite susceptible to “goal contagion,” we may rapidly pick up someone else’s habits, so it’s helpful to be around people who are good role models. In fact, I’ve found that I’m more likely to be persuaded by seeing one person’s successful action than by the most impressive research. It’s a data point of one—but for me that’s a very persuasive data point.

Once I thought about it, I was startled to realize how often I’d picked up a strong habit based on someone’s passing remark.

People fall into three gears when it comes to supporting (or opposing) other people’s healthy habits.

Drive: People in “drive” mode add energy and propulsive force to our habits. They can be very helpful as they encourage, remind, and join in. However, if they’re too pushy, they may be a nuisance, and their enthusiasm can rouse a spirit of opposition. They may very well push a Rebel away from a good habit.

Reverse: Some people press others to reverse out of a healthy habit. They may do this from a sense of love, such as the food pushers who argue, “You should enjoy yourself!” or “I baked this just for you!” Or their behavior may be more mean-spirited, as they try to tempt, ridicule, or discourage us from sticking to a healthy habit.

Neutral: These folks go along with our habits. They support us whatever we do. Sometimes this is useful, but sometimes this support makes it easier to indulge in habits when we know we shouldn’t.

Have you noticed a time when you picked up a habit from someone else? Or when someone else’s habit rubbed off on you? Once I started paying attention, I was surprised by just how often this happens.

  • ChrisD

    This is interesting, as on the one hand you might want to help people form good habits, on the other hand I have enough to do keeping up with my own habits, without taking on the burden of everyone else’s habits. I think this comes back to what you say, ask for help, obligers could ask their friends if they need them to NOT be supportive of certain habits.
    I was just thinking of my possible role in helping others keep their habit yesterday. A friend gave up carbs for January, and was motivated enough to not have any birthday cake last week, and yet had a biscuit yesterday. I noticed, and commented (!?), but I also remembered that they are an adult who can make their own choices and its’ not my resolution it’s theirs. So to balance between encouraging but not hectoring.

  • Jamie

    My husband got fit and lost weight 8 years ago. I can’t stand the thought of being his chubby wife, so I try to stay fit as well. My motivation is mostly vanity since I don’t want to feel embarrassed standing next to my super fit/slim husband who only weighs 15lbs more than I do. I’m not nearly as disciplined as he is…

  • Dianne ochiltree

    Wow, what a timely reminder. No one can force you to develop or drop a habit. But if the people closest to you are not on the same page in that area of life, it makes it extremely difficult to change habits or set new life goals. Today’s post has given me much to think about.

    • michelle

      It certainly makes you think about being around people who influence our habits.
      Can be really hard to change a bad habit if you are surrounded by people who don’t care.
      Strength of character I guess is important here and faith in yourself as an individual to be on your own journey.

  • Mimi Gregor

    I seem to do very well with not drinking, even in situations where other people are (parties, dinner out). That being said, there were friends from my drinking days that I dropped, not because they would influence me to drink again, but because when sober, I found them really annoying. I find that I cannot tolerate alcohol-driven conversation anymore, and it seems that my relationship to these people was based primarily on “going out for drinks after work… or meeting for drinks in the evening. I just found that I had nothing in common with them anymore.

  • JJ

    Getting married had a HUGE affect on my eating habits – in the wrong direction. For us it’s not a matter of being supportive or not though. For example, if he’s cooking, he doles out equal portions “to be fair”. If I’m cooking, I cook the meat and potatoes he likes, whereas I’d normally be okay with a simple salad on my own. And it’s hard for me to resist dessert when he’s having some right next to me. He doesn’t need to lose weight like I do, so incompatible goals make for some challenges. Unless this is one big loophole!

  • Randee

    After several years of asking the hubby to help me stick to goals, I finally realized that he was what you call “Neutral” and that I couldn’t rely on him in that capacity. I finally had to let go of that expectation and just truly appreciate how supportive he was regardless of what I wanted to do. I mean, who gets mad at their best friend who just wants you to be happy? Ugh! After that, I put the responsibility of achieving my goals squarely on my own shoulders. That realization came about the same time I started learning about loopholes and figuring out who I really was from your blog and and how to work with that.

  • Jenny

    I think this is a great idea. But I’m really disappointed that there are no subtitles provided for the millions of Americans (and even more people worldwide) who depend on subtitles to understand videos like this. I realize YouTube has automatic subtitling, but it’s not available on my mobile devices.
    Could you please consider providing subtitles or at the very least a complete transcript along with any images used in the video?
    Thanks so much. I love your newsletter.

  • “In fact, I’ve found that I’m more likely to be persuaded by seeing one person’s successful action than by the most impressive research. It’s a data point of one—but for me that’s a very persuasive data point”

    AMEN

    OOOh – I am heavily influenced by others. In fact, my eating disorder symptoms escalate when I am with someone who ‘gets my goat’ or who preaches what they don’t practice! LOL

    This is a fabulous reminder to be WITH people who guide you without being pushy, love you without being a groupie and who encourage you without stealing your ‘space’

    Thanks Gretchen #HUGS

    Kitto

  • Maricel Moviglia

    Hi Gretchen,
    I’m so glad you wrote about this issue. Since I started reading your blog and other papers (written by yourself or other researchers), I found out that you haven’t deep on “the influence of support groups in the adqusition and formation of habits”. I’m the mother of two teenagers and the stepmother of other two. My personal experience show me that all support groups (school friends an teachers/professors, church group, club friends, etc) have a great influence on them.
    For this reason, my husband and I are very strict about with whom they are hanging out. We try not to impouse our point of view, we rather prefer make them think about this and consensuate a plan.